Andrew Harris wanders into the magical realms of the most self-assertive of hotels created by Peter Pulitzer
1968: Young citoyens man the barricades in Paris, San Francisco is still panting after its Summer of Love, and something calling itself youth culture has just kicked the door in. Can-Do can and will be let off the leash as the young lay waste to the shibboleths of their elders, no longer accepted as betters.
So what then in 1968, when an American (where they tend to do can-do better than the rest of us), with a sizeable inheritance in his back pocket, turns up in Amsterdam, where anything goes and usually does? He buys up a dozen houses spanning two of the grandest canals from the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age, and announces that he will build a spectacular hotel. Obviously.
Peter Pulitzer, grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer of Pulitzer Prize fame, made his own mark adding the famous name to what would become a very famous hotel. The twelve houses soon became 25, creating an enormous rabbit warren of upstairs-downstairs interconnectivity and individuality. It was as if Willy Wonka, with Lewis Carroll as executive design consultant, had been let loose with the Grand Hotel. But the result really was spectacular.
Rather bizarrely, this most self-assertive of hotels began as a Howard Johnson, the monotone US motel chain, for which Pulitzer had secured the new European franchise. Johnson himself turned up for the Pulitzer’s opening in 1970, bearing a foundation brick from the original New Amsterdam settlement in America. Pulitzer, however, quickly checked out of the motel connection.
He sold the hotel in 1990, but it has recently been the subject of a meticulous renovation, thus successfully chaperoning his extraordinary vision into the 21st century in a way that would make him proud. In fact, it did, when he stood in the gardens he’d created half a century before, having been invited back for the re-opening in August 2016.
Part of the magic stems from the original project being as grand as the canals on which the hotel stands, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht. The property is so extensive it spans both, making the space in-between, a secret outdoor sanctuary in the heart of the city. The location is perfect, amidst the maze of 400-year-old canals, in a metropolis that always manages to feel like a village. Gone are the junkies and the assault course of never-ending dog crap, and in come new visitors, parading around the now UNESCO-listed, spruced-up streets. With the Rijksmuseum having also recently completed a decade-long renovation, Amsterdam is all dressed up, and doesn’t need anywhere to go. It seems to have arrived.
Watching a phalanx of Chinese tourists following their leader’s flag as they mount an assault on the Anne Frank House, I suddenly find myself lamenting the down-at-heel, stoned-out-of-its-brain, Bohemian world, supplanted by Europe’s new model army of weekend escape artists. Having just been seamlessly whisked over from London’s City Airport myself though, I can’t really have my appelflappen (delicious Dutch apple pastry) and eat it, and happily fall into line.
In any case, a haughty supermodel still glides by on an old bike every five minutes, looking as glamorous as ever, spikey heels pushing the pedals with effortless panache, perhaps a little shitzu perched in a plastic crate tied to the handlebars. Eclectic Dutch charm is still there, but like the Pulitzer, it’s also had a makeover. Not least in the chi chi ‘Nine Streets’, a grid of cross streets between the big canals, home to fabulous independent shops from uber-stylish European fashion to cute café’s in which to quaff your jenever, and more types of Dutch cheese than you knew existed. The Pulitzer is right there, and if you want to venture further afield, the bikes are at the hotel entrance. You’ll have to bring your own shitzu, although a puncture repair kit is provided in every room.
That tongue-in-cheek statement is courtesy of Jacu Strauss, who, with some impressive work behind him as Tom Dixon’s senior designer, not least at the Mondrian hotel in London, was entrusted with updating the Pulitzer. Preserving the delicate balance between Vogue cover shoot and Vermeer portrait saw Strauss delving deep into the background of every building. He slept in each one of the 225 rooms, the resultant condensed histories now hanging on their walls.
Negotiating the snakes-and-ladders staircases and elegant corridors is endlessly enjoyable. Spaces collapse into a modern art gallery one minute, then open up into what looks like Elizabeth I’s boudoir the next. Wondering if the old Dutch master on the wall is an original, you suddenly realise that the tablecloth the Calvinist burghers are leaning on is a plastic bin liner. Truly great hotels blend seamlessly into where they sit, and this seductive temple to anarchic chic has clearly been on the same journey as the streets around it. The 1660s provide the backdrop, the 1960s the mood music, and all is embossed with a uniquely Nederland, 21st-century, city-centre sophistication.
Weaving a design narrative between the grandeur of the Saxenberg house, with its frescoes and floor-to-ceiling carved marble chimney-piece, on the Keisersgracht, and the grand piano suspended upside down above the main entrance on the Prinsengracht, will have drained Strauss’s creative juices. But these 25 houses are now home to a beautiful architectural allure that oscillates between edgy and the edge of reason. The accomplished juxtaposing of antiques, commissioned pieces, and traditional as well as contemporary artworks, coalesces into a mixed media installation, that takes so long to get around, the curators have very thoughtfully laid on somewhere to eat and sleep.
This opulent, Jeff Koons-Hits-The-Canals fantasyland, reaches its crescendo inside the four themed (Book, Music, Art, and Antique collectors) suites. With commensurate collectibles on the walls, as interior design heads off the wall, these sumptuous expanses of eccentric indulgence couldn’t possibly veer any further away from the established concept of a corporate hotel suite. Their front doors opening straight onto the canal, mean only the neighbours comprehend that the comings and goings are hotel guests.
The new restaurant Jansz, named after the 17th-century bon viveur who owned several Pulitzer houses, is a delightfully crafted space, its outlook across the Keisersgracht irrepressibly romantic. The entrance, once an apothecary on one of the Nine Streets, gives no indication whatsoever of being part of a hotel, but the plush seating and large, glass wall cases full of antique bottles and other apothecarial paraphernalia, confirm that you are once again, captive to Strauss’s creative whimsy. Here, as in every other part of the hotel, the almost exclusively young staff deliver a standard of service that is as exemplary as it is notable
Within the living museum of UNESCO’s newly proscribed canal circle, residents are learning to conform to the constraints of a heritage oversight that might soon be issuing strictures on doorknob polishing. The mere idea of some guy arriving from Palm Beach and doing whatever he fancies with 25 houses would now invoke mass hara-kiri on the Keisersgracht. It happened once. It’s impossible to imagine it happening again. But should you be happening by, Peter Pulitzer’s spectacular hotel now looks more spectacular than ever.
Andrew Harris travelled to Amsterdam with CityJet, which operates up to eight flights a day from London City Airport with return prices from £75.
Double rooms at the Pulitzer from €235 and Collectors Suites from €650.